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Volpone and The Merchant of Venice

By Emily-Rowe Apr 22, 2015 2592 Words
Are Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Jonson’s Volpone devoted to ‘the performance of justice’? Justice has intrinsic links with laws and rules – two motifs that are central to both Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Jonson’s Volpone. These include laws of the Venetian state, the contracts between business men, friends or lovers and Biblical laws. Strict adherence to the law is questioned as to whether or not it truly brings justice as often the varying laws of state, love, business and religion contradict and block the way. In both plays the setting of Venice is vital in conveying the themes and tensions within the plot. As a centre of trade, wealth and power Venice was influential in the literature and culture of Elizabethan England. The playwrights, however, present Venice in two very different ways. In Jonson’s Volpone, Venice is the centre of greed and decadence – so much so that the English feared that if they visited Venice they might be infected by its immorality. In his edition of Volpone, R.B. Parker describes the Elizabethan view of Venice to be “the exemplar of wealth, sophistication, art, luxury, political cunning, and stringent government.”1 The characters of Sir Politic Would-be and his wife exemplify English aristocrats who have been corrupted by Venetian ways. In Act III we see Lady Politic list off Italian poets as she has “read them all”2 and she is immediately revealed to be vain, greedy and corrupt. Jonson creates a world where justice and the law hold little sway over the citizens of Venice, who act purely out of greed and lust rather than by any rules or promises. Warren Chernaik describes the Venice of Volpone as “a world where the judges are no less corrupt than the criminals brought before them.”3 Almost every major character in Volpone is motivated by avarice – be it the greed for wealth of Voltore, Corvino and Corbaccio (or ‘the three heirs’), the desire for power we see in Mosca or uncontrollable lust in Volpone. Celia and Bonario, on one hand, could be seen as foils to Volpone and figures of morality. These characters, however, are thin and underdeveloped. Even in her lines “whither, whither, / Is shame fled human breasts…Is that which ever was a cause of life / Now placed beneath the basest circumstance” (Volpone, III.vii.133-37) Celia is merely a mouthpiece for Jonson. Celia is not like the strong, witty Portia but instead appears weak against her husband’s abuse and simply a vessel for ideals of honour and modesty. Jonson’s characterisation is stronger in his villains – perhaps because it was greed he wanted to expose rather than praise virtue. Jonson wishes to present greed as a fault that runs through all of society. This is clear from the repetitive nature of the scenes in Act I as we are introduced to the three heirs and that each heir comes from a different area of society – Voltore, a lawyer, Corbaccio, a nobleman and Corvino, a merchant. The heirs come from different walks of life and professions yet are indistinguishable from each other in their traits of greed and corruption. Shakespeare, however, creates a very different Venice full of characters controlled entirely by laws and contracts. The merchant Antonio does not expect mercy from the Duke as “the Duke cannot deny the course of Law…Since that the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations…”4 Venice was a multicultural capital of trade and Leo Salinger notes in his essay ‘The Idea of Venice in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’ that “visitors were impressed by the exceptional variety of nationalities to be seen in Venice, both travellers and alien residents.” (Salinger, p. 173) To allow fair business practise between all ethnicities, cultures and religions Venice had strict laws to ensure justice in trade. It was the “freedom of Venetian institutions” (Salinger, p. 175) that drew Jews, such as Shylock, to Venice to set up business. In Merchant of Venice justice is the lifeblood of the city and economy, not corruption, and a strict adherence to law is displayed in several characters. Shylock is the ultimate representative of the letter of the law as he says in Act IV “I stand here for law” (Merchant, IV.i.141) but all characters show a certain devotion to rules and codes. Despite her independent streak Portia keeps to her father’s will even though it may result in an unhappy marriage for her. Even in her role as a legal administrator, unlike the emotional pleas of Bassanio and the angry outbursts of Gratiano, she uses the letter of the law to triumph over Shylock and save Antonio when she tells Shylock he “shall have nothing but the penalty” (Merchant, IV.i.319). The Christian merchants also abide by the codes of friendship and love. For example in the opening scene we see how despite the matter at hand being Antonio’s business venture the men focus instead on his emotional health. When Salerio leaves Antonio he claims it is because Antonio is now in the company of “worthier friends” but Antonio knows it is in fact “business” that calls Salerio away (Merchant, I.i.61-63) Though money and business is important to these men they value a code of manners, politeness and friendship above all. Later in the play, through the light hearted game of Portia and Nerissa’s rings, we see the codes and promises between lovers. Salinger describes the events of this final act as Shakespeare “dwelling on lovers’ irrational yet binding commitments.” (Salinger, p. 175) The difference between the justice of Jonson’s Volpone and Merchant of Venice is that in Volpone the characters are punished for their lack of justice and moral codes whereas in Merchant Shylock is punished for adhering so strictly to laws (and perhaps his own desire for revenge) that he lacks mercy. Punishment and justice are synonymous in this play – even in Merchant despite its emphasis on forgiveness. For some critics including Chernaik Warren the punishments “doled out at the end of Volpone [are] extremely harsh.” (Warren, p. 61) They do, however, have a poetic justice to them in that the punishment matches the crime. Mosca, who had attempted to rise above his position as a parasite and impersonate a gentleman, is stripped of all freedom and power and sentenced to be a galley slave. Volpone is sentenced to remain in shackles “Till thou be’st sick and lame indeed” (Volpone, V.xii.124), the greedy Voltore and Corbaccio are stripped of their wealth and titles and Corvino, who had been so afraid of humiliation due to his wife, is sentenced to ultimate public humiliation as he is rowed down the canals of Venice wearing donkey ears. Once again the Venetian setting also allowed Jonson and Shakespeare to exact harsh yet poetic punishments on their villains. In his essay ‘Volpone and the Reputation of Venetian Justice’, Richard H. Perkinson argued that “Venice, at this time, was singly notable not only for its ‘sinister repute’, but also for the integrity and severity of its legal system.”5 It is possible, then, that by using Venice in order to punish extreme villainy with extreme punishment it is not the justice itself that these playwrights are focussed on. Volpone is a didactic satire and although the villains are creatively punished in the end the play is focussed far more on the crime of greed itself than the justice required to punish it. The characters of Volpone are already punishing themselves through their unlimited greed. At the beginning of the play Volpone reflects on the foolishness of those he cons as he exploits their greed: “What a rare punishment / Is avarice to itself!” (Volpone, I.v.143-44) The three potential heirs are so consumed by greed it is causing them to lose wealth rather than to gain. This line foreshadows the fate of Volpone for he too punishes his own avarice. Up until Act III the audience is somewhat sympathetic towards Volpone and may view him as an anti-hero rather than a villain as although the heirs are simply greedy for wealth, Volpone is simply enjoying his game. In his attempted rape of Celia, however, Volpone becomes villainous and loses control of his con now that he has lost control of his lust. The ultimate transgression is when Volpone pretends to be sick at the court – taking his game out of the private realm of his home and into the public realm of law and justice. After this some of the symptoms Volpone had been imitating become reality – “…my left leg ‘gan to have the cramp / And I appre’nded straight some power had struck me / With a dead palsy…” (Volpone, V.i.5-6) Warren describes Volpone as a “spider” who has become “imprisoned in the role he has chosen to play.” (Warren, p. 60) Jonson’s portrayal of characters trapped by their own greed suggests a moral message that all greed will be punished even if the justice of the law isn’t performed. Shylock’s punishment at the end of Merchant of Venice similarly feels like a necessary plot turn to dispose of the villain and complete the happy ending for Antonio and the lovers. Perkinson notes that “the law of Venice alone is allowed to determine the outcome of both comedies” (Perkinson, p. 12) – suggesting that for both playwrights the severity of Venetian allowed a poetic justice to be performed at the end of the play so that they could use extreme and perhaps caricature characters to expose moral faults such as avarice and lack of mercy throughout. When comparing the playwrights Russ McDonald, in his book Shakespeare and Jonson: Jonson and Shakespeare, wrote that “Shakespeare observes and smiles at humanity and its ways, Jonson mocks and fulminates.”6 Modern readers may view Shylock’s punishment to be just as harsh as those exacted in Volpone. Shakespeare’s audience, however, would have reacted with glee and satisfaction to Shylock’s downfall and conversion – an inevitable end for the stock, villainous Jew – and understood the Christian message that mercy and forgiveness above legal justice is a key theme in Merchant of Venice. In Portia’s speech on mercy we are told how, as an attribute of God, it brings humans closer to Him – “It is an attribute to God himself, / And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice…” (IV.i.192-94) Portia’s words, however, fall on deaf ears as Shylock is bent on seeking justice and revenge. Although Shylock is legally correct in exacting his punishment on Antonio, it is his clearly vengeful motives that turn the audience against him. The value of justice over mercy is rooted in an intrinsic difference between Jewish Old Testament beliefs and the Christian values of the New Testament. Just as merchants, friends and lovers have codes and covenants to live by, Christians and God have a covenant and the ‘justice’ for keeping to this covenant is heaven. In the Old Testament and Judaism this covenant revolved around the letter of the law, a strict adherence to ritual and physical signs of devotion such as fasting. The Old Testament also portrays a stricter, law-focussed God who exacts harsh punishments on those who do not follow his rules. This changes in the New Testament, however, as the covenant becomes spiritual. Christians must simply humble themselves and forgive and they will be shown mercy by God and offered salvation. Shylock’s focus on law and rejection of mercy is, therefore, not purely a character trait but definitive of his race and religion. Shakespeare’s use of racial and religious differences to expand the themes of justice within his play are once again linked to his use of Venice as a setting. In his essay ‘Shakespeare and Venice’ John Drakakis argued that Shakespeare was “aware of the semiotic complexity of Venice as a geographical location: a dubious haven on the frontier where ‘Christians’ and ‘black pagans, Turks and Saracens’ confronted each other.”7 As previously mentioned Venice was a trading hub that drew in nationalities from across the globe – as is most evident in the variety of suitors for Portia that hail from Europe to Africa. Shakespeare is using the tensions associated with the multicultural nature of Venice alongside the differing religious views on law and mercy to explore how true justice can be performed. Christian morality over the legal justice of Venice is evident throughout The Merchant of Venice. The casket game could be seen to exemplify the reality of the Christian undertones of Venetian law. The casket game is supposedly designed so that all men will have an equal chance for Portia’s hand in marriage but when in examined is actually bias towards a virtuous Christian guessing the correct casket. The gold casket is engraved with “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” and the silver casket with “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” (Merchant, II.vii.5-7). Christianity teaches us, however, not be guided purely by desire such as the gold casket, and that we do not deserve the grace of God as with the silver but receive it because of his mercy. The lead casket, with its humble appearance, asks the man to “give and hazard all he hath” (Merchant, II.vii.9), therefore embodying Christian virtues of faith and sacrifice. One could see the casket game not just as a representation of the justice of the law but the justice of life. Even if the Venetian state’s justice is generally all encompassing so that even cruel lenders such as Shylock get their way, true justice will be performed in the afterlife when virtuous Christians will triumph. The Venetian state performs justice at the end of both Volpone and The Merchant of Venice and satisfies us with a just and happy ending. The Venetian setting, greedy villains and trial scenes allow both plays to explore themes of justice but it is the necessity of justice that opens up the wider themes in each play. Punishment must be exacted, virtue rewarded and villainy demolished for justice to be performed but it is virtue and villainy that are the true focus of Shakespeare and Jonson’s works. These writers play on our desire to see justice performed so that we can detest the greed and lust of Volpone and strive towards the mercy and forgiveness of The Merchant of Venice, and so that the boundaries of good and evil can be tested in the eternally just world of the stage.

Chernaik, Warren, ‘The dyer’s hand: Shakespeare and Jonson’, in The Cambridge Companionto Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists, ed. by Ton Hoenselaars (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 54-69 Drakakis, John, ‘Shakespeare and Venice’, in Italian Culture in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: Rewriting, Remaking, Refashioning, ed. by Michelle Marrapodi (Hampshire, England and Vermont, USA: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007) pp. 169-186 Jonson, Ben, Volpone, or the Fox, ed. by Brian Parker (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999) McDonald, Russ, Shakespeare and Jonson: Jonson and Shakespeare (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988) Perkinson, Richard H., ‘Volpone and the Reputation of Venetian Justice’, in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 35 (1940), <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3717404?seq=5> [Accessed 6 March 2014] Salinger, Leo, ‘The Idea of Venice in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’, in Shakespeare’s Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, ed. by Michelle Marrapodi (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993) pp. 171-184 Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, ed. by W. Moelwyn Merchant (London: Penguin Books, 2005)

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